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Tuesday, 06 August 2013 13:36

Album review: Smith Westerns learn that experience comes at a price on 'Soft Will'

Album review: Smith Westerns learn that experience comes at a price on 'Soft Will'
Written by Erin Frank

Smith Westerns
"Soft Will"
Mom+Pop Music

Chicago's Smith Westerns were formed in 2007 by high school students Max Kakacek and brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori, who between them shared an interest in playing music but nearly zero experience in actually doing it.

Since then, they've added drummer Julien Ehrlich and transformed from a rough outfit flying the founding banner of punk into the scrubbed-up, sophisticated production aficionados they are today.

The Smith Westerns' first LP was a self-titled effort released by HoZac Records in 2009 and sounds pretty much how you'd expect. It's sloppy, dissonant and bratty, but it's also youthful and dynamic and contains a few of the shimmers that developed into their second album, 2011's "Dye It Blonde." "Dye It Blonde" was more refined than its predecessor, understandably so as it was produced by indie rock Svengali Chris Coady. Its melodies were layered and at times delicate, but overall, "Dye It Blonde" retained enough of the juvenile catchiness of the Smith Westerns' debut, and its comparisons to mid-career T. Rex were deserved.

Now the Smith Westerns have released "Soft Will," an album that officially rejects their teenaged frivolity and suggests that they really are grown-ups now. The band is still able to impart a sense of the jejune with Cameron Omori and Julien Ehrlich's straightforward rhythms and Cullen Omori's '60s teen-idol vocals, but "Soft Will" is such a slickly distant project that it's hard to imagine hordes of fans being whipped into enough of a frenzy to bother singing along.

The albums opens with "3AM Spiritual," an ode to being famous and sad that waits a little too long -- over three minutes of breathy "oh yeah yeah yeah" -- to open up with atmospheric instrumentals that almost allude to an album full of carefully cultivated glam influences peppered with a bit of Beatlemania. And occasionally, this happens. "Varsity" is a cleverly arranged mishmash of sharp keys and almost feminine vocals, and the indelible "Glossed" begins with guitarist Max Kakacek's echoing arpeggio and peaks in a clamor of cymbals and crashing chords.

What seems like the end of "Glossed" is actually the beginning of "XXIII," a Floyd-like sprawler that sounds a lot longer than what iTunes tells me is only 4:29. "Fool Proof" starts with another promising Kakacek stutter but unravels quickly, and this bait-and-switch is distressingly frequent on the rest of "Soft Will." The subdued tempos become sleepy and the choruses become lullabies, and I'm no decrier of maturity, but the Smith Westerns are still young men, and are hardly ready to be the granddaddies of tribute rock.

"Soft Will" contains the symphonic richness of older records (you know, the ones we actually refer to as records), particularly those produced around the intersection of glam and what's now called classic rock. What it contains in sound quality, though, it lacks in passion, and none of the subtle background effects that riddle its length do much of anything other than make me wonder if I'm hearing part of the song or perhaps a temperamental and expensive part of my car's engine. It's technically adept and sounds pretty, I suppose, but there's a bloodless quality to "Soft Will," which is especially disappointing considering the band's former life as a garage-punk ensemble.

I'm hardly one to bemoan that punk is dead and I'm not convinced that anyone who's born in a garage should stay there, but anyone with bills can attest that being an adult is kind of a drag, and "Soft Will" sounds like the Smith Westerns have grown up a little too fast.

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